please watch it goodnight! ♪ ♪ this is "nightline." tonight, this million millionaire traded his yacht for a rescue ship and forced himself into the middle of an international migrant crisis. >> if you wait, 48 hours, they're all dead. it's like a ticking time bomb. >> reporter: they leave by the tens of thousands, crammed into tiny boats at the mercy of the sea. >> you can't even stand up. there are only two small holes for air. miserable conditions. >> reporter: we are there as an independent search and rescue mission tries to pull off their biggest rescue ever. tonight, meet mohammed fleeing
sea and a harrowing mission to save the migrants and refugees fleeing their home countries by the thousands only to find themselves stranded. we got exclusive access on board the rescue ship marking this new collaboration with the bbc times two. >> reporter: it's just past dawn. >> if there's any boats out there in this area we'll pick them up with a heat signal. >> reporter: a search and rescue team spots this small vessel in distress. over 500 people packed dangerously into a speeding rickety boat. >> right there, we need to continue going to starboard. because they're moving so fast. go. go. >> as each hour ticks by their lives are on the line. you wait 24 hours, then a
quarter of that boat will be dead. if you do 48 hours, they're all dead. it's like a ticking time bomb. >> wait i want to know what this sickness is. is he having a problem with his leg? that's it. we're full. >> reporter: chris is not a naval commander or a coast guard captain. he's a private citizen, self-made american millionaire who has forced his way into the middle of an international crisis. >> people deserve a chance. they don't deserve to die drowning in the water. >> reporter: in the past two years, over 300,000 migrants and refugees have fled war and persecution in africa and the middle east bound for europe. surrendering their fates to people smugglers in ramshackle boats. >> there are only two small holes for air. miserable conditions. >> reporter: clinging to the promise of a better life. [ clapping ] [ singing ]
>> we have to leave each other. it's never nice. >> reporter: he is a 33-year-old louisiana native who made his millions in insurance. he and his wife gina came up with the idea while vacationing with their daughter offer theotaughter off the coast of italy. so last summer he swapped his yacht for a boat called the phoenix. and founded and financed the first mission. >> we could have bought a house, we could have done whatever it is that rich people do. but those things weren't meaningful. this was more meaningful.
>> reporter: right off the coast of libya. we join him aboard the phoenix three weeks into this second mission. >> the drones will come down and start running 15 nautical miles from this coast here. they mostly send people out based on weather. >> reporter: migrants can pay people smugglers thousands of dollars for passage on boats. >> if they leave by 6:00 as soon as we start flying we will see. >> reporter: so to some extent do you think they're getting an incentive to send boats of refugees out? >> no i think they're going to come out here anyways, and if they do come out, we surely want to be there to ensure they don't die at sea. that's the whole point. >> reporter: with its infrared camera it can see people floating in the water even from
two and a half thousand feet. two weeks earlier, the drone spotted this 40-foot boat packed with over 300 people. >> we have to take people on board, phoenix and proceed north. roger that? we are coordinating with the italian navy. >> sit down please. >> phoenix, phoenix. >> reporter: but then another emergency request came in from the international rescue center. >> we are being sent to proceed to another location. there's another boat, similar situation. >> reporter: after such a big rescue the phoenix was already at capacity. and it was starting to get dark. >> everything okay? the lady is sick?
>> so we have a boat out here that we've been dealing with that's got 110 african migrants on board. >> hey boys. >> they're a little bit agitated. a little bit frustrated. they've had a couple fights on board. and we're waiting for a commercial vessel to come and assist them and take them on board. >> the ship that's pulling up here this is your ship all right? >> thank you, thank you. >> so we're going to help you to get on the ship. >> thank you. thank you! >> do not step on the boat. >> don't step on the boat! stay there! >> this is very dangerous when a boat is extremely overcrowded and unsafe. it becomes unstable. this is what we've seen many times when folks have been capsized. >> reporter: at sea, every ship is required by law to assist a vessel in distress. >> all right, who's first? who wants to be brave? >> slowly slowly. >> reporter: which is why
smugglers exploit busy commercial shipping lanes. >> yesterday a huge a people have left libya, so the entire system is overwhelmed. they overwhelm the system. every single time. >> reporter: an estimated 300,000 people are waiting in libya to cross. and so far this year over 1800 have died trying. >> boats, more boats out at sea save lives. and right now there's not enough boats out at sea. >> reporter: the relentless action takes a physical and emotional toll on the crew. >> even though i see them okay now on board, the kids still that i see them on those boats, i cannot understand it. it's not their place. they have to be in a safe place. kids are something important. you know? most important thing in life. i will try to make it better.
>> reporter: in the calm between rescues, some semblance of a normal life. >> what's on the menu for tonight? >> well for tonight in the oven we have a prime rib which i marinated earlier and threw it in. and we're going to have a cheesy risotto. [ laughter ] >> you can see people are starting to get kind of loopy, but everything's all right. >> reporter: the crew blows off steam when they can. knowing an emergency could be just over the horizon. >> we can see a blip on the radar that they think is the make rant boat. >> we are 1.7 nautical miles. >> reporter: coming up the phoenix faces its biggest challenge yet. >> hey, hey, hey. stop your boat for now. >> reporter: four boats. the second one taking on water. >> stop. >> reporter: 2,000 in peril. >> come on! no! >> our boat is full!
we can't take anymore people. >> reporter: and one man's desperate search for his family. >> i don't know what happened to my wife and my two children. i just pray to god that they came in one piece. toid arthritis like me... and you're talking to a rheumatologist about a biologic this is humira. this is humira helping to relieve my pain and protect my joints from further damage. this is humira helping me reach for more. doctors have been prescribing humira for more than 10 years. humira works for many adults. it targets and helps to block a specific source of inflammation that contrubutes to ra symptoms. humira can lower your ability to fight infections, including tuberculosis. serious, sometimes fatal infections and cancers including lymphoma have happened, as have blood liver and nervous system problems, serious allergic reactions and new or worsening heart failure. before treatment get tested for tb. tell your doctor if you've been to areas where certain fungal infections are common, and if you've had tb hepatitis b,
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and pick them out of the water. that's what you do. >> reporter: it's been three weeks of chaotic rescues at sea. they're going to resume the search in about eight hours as day breaks. the crew is always searching the next desperate wave. a call comes in from the emergency rescue center. >> we can see a blip on the radar that they think is the make rant boat. it's about five miles from where they initially thought it was. >> the situation, we give them life jackets and move from there. >> we're here to help you. how many people are on the boat? 500? >> 560. >> reporter: the most they've ever attempted to rescue. >> okay. [ shouting ]
>> hey hey hey sit down! >> reporter: the top deck filled with people, and they tell us there are 300 more down below. the sick and wounded are taken off first. and as they load them onto the phoenix -- >> whoa whoa whoa. >> stay with us. [ phone ringing ] >> yes. >> reporter: more news from the bridge. three more boats suddenly appear on the distance. four total. and one is taking on water fast. >> they're pumping the water out the boat but if their pump stops, we don't know what will happen. >> reporter: the phoenix underequipped to deal with so many people is racing against the clock. >> our boat is full!
we can't take anymore people. >> reporter: they call for help, a small fleet of international warships responds. it takes over six hours to rescue more than 2,000 people. we're told there are 250 people squeezed down here. you can't even stand up. there are only two small holes for air. they would have been crammed in here like cattle. miserable conditions. once the migrants are safely on board, en route to italy -- >> we ask you to stay calm and stay seated and not move around too much. >> reporter: medical staff from doctors without borders who are partnered with moas provide round the clock care. >> we've never seen this much ever at one time. >> reporter: all the migrants on board, many with children have fled the east african country of eritrea, ruled by a dictator accused of widespread human rights abuses. >> first thing i did when i get
into this ship i prayed and thanked god. >> reporter: in the crowd, we find mohammed mahmoud. a computer technician. >> i don't have life. you understand? i don't have life. >> reporter: he says he sold two homes to pay smugglers for the passage of 17 family members which cost him more than $40,000. >> reporter: how is your health? and this is some of the family here. the rest were on a separate boat from libya. before being sent out to sea, they languished in a camp abused by guards. >> it was like hell living hell. especially when they separated me from my kids. >> reporter: at the last second the smugglers put his wife and three of his kids in a different boat. he doesn't know if they survived. >> i just pray to god that they came in one piece.
or else i don't know what to do. >> reporter: after 36 hours, the phoenix nears the first sliver of sicily. [ singing and clapping ] >> it's a lovely city. >> it's beautiful. >> i'm looking there. i cannot wait. i cannot wait. i cannot wait. >> some of these guys have been on the road for years. it's a very special moment for everybody. they're excited. they're not quite sure what to expect. >> no, sir. >> reporter: so many saw this as the finish line. but the journey clearly is not over. many people don't know where they want to go. and even if they do have an idea of which country they want to end up in they don't really understand what it's going to take to get there.
this historic flood of migrants and refugees has deeply divided europe. >> they're fleeing conflict and seeking a better life. there's no alternative for them. there's no legal pathways for them to take an airplane and come to europe. >> reporter: as countries squabble over a plan to share the burden most new arrivals are packed into holding centers, hoping for political asylum. others simply looking for better work. those who don't qualify for either will be sent back home. as for mahmoud, he hopes to travel to switzerland where he already has relatives but not without his family who he looks for as yet another ship arrives. >> i don't see my wife yet. no. no. i don't see them. i don't know what to do. even i cannot think straight now. >> reporter: you're losing hope? >> yeah. i'm afraid that something might happen in the sea.
♪ ♪ >> we're just on the southern shores of malta. >> reporter: back on the ship, they are headed back home for a much-needed break. >> every time you go home you think you need to stay out here. but you can't save the world. you can't save the world on your own. >> what they're trying to do is to inspire eu states and the globe for that matter to say look at what one family has been able to achieve. look at how many lives, because one family decided to do something. >> hey! >> reporter: then a week after leaving mahmoud, we get word that he made his way to switzerland. we track him down to a small town in this migrant center. there, all five kids, wife miriam and mahmoud, the family finally reunited. >> wow i was feeling great, because i didn't believe it you know? >> reporter: as they applied for
asylum, their future is far from certain, but for mahmoud, they've made it. >> for me? as long as we i'm with my kids i'm living. i'm happy. we are all together. >> reporter: i'm alex marquardt for "nightline." for more of our "nightline" partnership with bbc current affairs, visit our new youtube channel, xtwo. we'll be right back. abc news "nightline," brought to you by ex-pedia. when you travel, we help you make all kinds of connections. connections you almost miss. and ones you never thought you'd make. we help connect where you are. to places you never thought you'd go. this, is why we travel. and why we continue to create new technology to connect you to the people and places that matter.
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tribute to the man who had us on the edge of our seats with his music, which is now forever linked to some of our favorite movies. a genius gone too soon. he wasn't a well-known face in hollywood. but any movie lover could easily recognize his work. ♪ ♪ james horner, the musician turned composer behind the iconic score of "titanic" and "avatar" the two highest-grossing films in history. died piloting a small plane that crashed at the age of 61. he also scored classics like "field of dreams", "a beautiful mind", and "brave heart." the winner of two academy awards remembered across hollywood today. rob lowe tweeting he will live